President Donald Trump called for a renewed commitment to protecting America’s schools and children Thursday following a shooting that left 17 people dead, and school security experts say more can be done to save lives during and after an attack or to prevent one from happening in the first place.
The assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida Wednesday was the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Nikolas Cruz, a former student who was expelledfrom the school, has reportedly confessed to the crime and is now facing 17 counts of premeditated murder.
In a statement to the nation Thursday, President Donald Trump thanked first responders, expressed sympathy with the victims and their families, and announced plans to visit Parkland himself. He spoke vaguely of the need for reform, but he offered no specific prescription for school safety or mental illness.
“We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools, and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” he said, adding, “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.”
Experts and law enforcement officials have identified security measures they believe can make that difference, and many schools have worked to implement them since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, but like all soft targets, no educational facility is ever 100 percent safe.
Though it may be hard to tell sometimes, schools are actually safer than they used to be. Of the 17 shootings at schools this year prior to Wednesday, several involved accidental discharges or gunshots hitting inanimate objects. One was a mass casualty event similar to the one in Florida.
“There’s a trend line,” said David Perrodin, a safety expert and podcast host who researches user interface for threat reporting systems. “The shootings are typically more targeted now of one student toward another student or two students.”
Chris Dorn, an analyst at Safe Havens International and author of “Staying Alive: How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters,” pointed to a study showing that transportation accidents are far more likely causes of deaths at schools than mass shooters.
“These are terrible events and we need to prepare for them,” he said, “but there’s also other things we know will happen like medical emergencies and natural disasters.”
Many schools offer active shooter drills and teach students to run, hide, or fight when an attack occurs. Such training is important, according to Dorn, but it should not overshadow preparation for emergencies that are more common.
“The active shooter is statistically one of the least likely events we’ll have in a school,” he said.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had an armed resource officer on campus, but authorities say he never encountered the shooter. Armed guards make more sense at some schools than others, according to experts, and there are logistical and financial limitations to securing every possible point of entry.
“In my opinion, armed guards are great but they have to be at the location where the shooter is accessing the facility,” said Joseph LaSorsa, a school security consultant and former Secret Service officer. Their presence may have some deterrent effect, but unless a school can afford to position them at every entrance and exit, an armed suspect can still find a way in.
According to Dorn, schools have to consider many factors in deciding whether to rely on armed officers. In a high-crime urban area, it may be more effective than in a relatively peaceful rural town.
“It’s going to depend on their size, their threat level, and their financial capabilities,” he said.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, lamented the politicization of the armed security issue, with civil rights advocates raising alarms about law enforcement overreach and overzealous punishment. When properly trained, the officers can play a key role in disrupting plots.
“While these incidents capture our attention, the hidden secret is how many incidents are actually prevented,” he said, noting reports of one foiled attack this week.
Recognizing the limitations of an armed police presence, some state legislatures and school districts have turned toputting guns in the hands of teachers.
“There’s very few places where I would suggest that, and that would be locations where there’s not access to police or an armed response,” Dorn said.
Like churches and shopping malls, the nature of schools and the purpose they serve leave them inherently vulnerable to attack.
“Schools are, and I think should be to some extent, vulnerable because we want them to be focused on that open educational environment,” Dorn said.
Preventing an armed assault is not a concern that was taken into account when most schools were built, according to Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center.
“The problem/challenge for school campuses is that they were never designed to be defended or absolutely controlled,” he said via email.
Stephens suggests schools undertake a comprehensive site assessment, including drills, training, and a review of vulnerabilities.
“When it comes to school safety, my advice is to do everything you can, knowing you can’t do everything,” he said.
A lawmaker in South Carolina has already seized on the Parkland shooting to press for metal detectors in schools statewide. However, Ken Trump observed that a lack of technology or equipment is rarely the factor that enables an attack to occur.
“While the facts of every one of those cases vary, the common thread across the board is they involve allegations of failure of people and procedures,” Trump said.
Still, schools often seek more technology and better equipment, and Perrodin expects that will be the case after Parkland as well.
“What will happen without a doubt is schools will be pushed to fortify their settings,” he said.
Parents will want tangible security improvements, whether that is guards, bulletproof glass, or screening equipment. Fortifying the school building could just lead a suspect to target students on the playground or at a bus stop, and experts were hesitant to focus too heavily on the gunman’s weapon of choice.
“If it wasn’t a gun, this young man could have used a car,” Perrodin said, noting a growing trend of terrorists launching vehicle attacks that rack up significant body counts.
In the wake of Columbine, Dorn said, school safety was taken very seriously, and funds, grants, and other resources were widely available. In the decades since, much of that money has dried up as security slipped lower on the priority list.
According to USA Today, armed resource officers are one of several security measures funded by Florida’s Safe Schools program. Despite annual requests for increased funding from the state Department of Education, 67 districts have split $64.4 million per year for seven years. This is down about $10 million from what they were getting prior to the Great Recession.
Beyond the question of whether schools have enough security resources, LaSorsa cited systemic failures in the mental health system that leave dangerous people on the streets and able to obtain firearms.
“Every mass shooting going back to Columbine, in schools and in other locations, the common denominator is mental illness…,” he said. “You can’t tell me that somebody who’s dead set on killing people is playing with a full deck.”
His solution to that problem is a drastic one, though, and one that he acknowledges is unlikely to happen.
“We need to go back to incarcerating and institutionalizing mental patients that are deemed a danger to themselves or others…,” he said. “We as a society are experiencing mass shootings over the last 25 to 30 years in record numbers, and that is because we’ve closed down our mental health institutions.”
Even that, LaSorsa recognizes, would not entirely solve the problem because not every shooter displays behavior before they act that is threatening enough to justify detaining them.
“You’re never going to get every mentally ill person off the street,” he said.
While fortification efforts typically get the most attention and provide the most reassurance to the public, Perrodin stressed that identifying and reporting suspicious activity is equally, if not more, important.
“People believe that fortification equals safety,” he said, but in most mass shooting incidents, there are prior signs of mental problems or violent behavior in the suspect’s history. It is still early in the investigation, but that appears to be the case with Cruz as well.
An attorney said Thursday that Cruz struggled with mental illness throughout his life. He appears to have posted several comments online about his desire to kill people and “be a professional school shooter.” Authorities say his social media profiles were “very disturbing,” reportedly including many photos of himself with firearms.
A white nationalist militia leader claimed to the Associated Press that Cruz trained with his group, which aims to turn Florida into a white ethnostate, but authorities have not verified that. Comments by Broward County Mayor Beam Furr suggested that he was treated at a mental health clinic in the past.
“These incidents when they explode by and large do not happen overnight,” Ken Trump said. “They are often the result of a series of deteriorating events in the shooter’s life.”
The question is always how blatant those signs are and whether teachers and classmates know what to do if they recognize them. Perrodin works with Sprigeo, a company that develops reporting tools students can use to alert administrators about bullying, potential attacks, and classmates at risk of suicide. He believes providing students with that kind of interface is vital to ensuring that active shooter training and physical security measures do not need to be used so often.
“We’re building better fire trucks,” he said, “and we’re not building better smoke alarms.”